Desire: How to Find Your Story

By Patrick Kirkland · March 17, 2012

In my attempts to finish several writing projects that are stuck somewhere between pages 13 and 30, I've begun looking for stories.

That's the one thing that books can't tell you. There are hundreds of "must-read" books, that tell you everything about how to write the screenplay: give your protagonist a goal, have an equally powered antagonist, have an emotional change at every scene; but not a one (that I've read) actually tells you how to find the story. And I don't know about you, but sometimes, that's exactly the book I need to read.

I have several protagonists that I love. Funny. Personable. Some of them are real pricks, but really lovable. But every time I throw something at them, they react like anybody would. And while I'm trying to get to a completed first draft, I just look at these perfect and lovable characters on the page and think, "What the hell do I do with you?"

Adaptation, pg 90


You talked about Crisis as the ultimate decision a character makes, but what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don't change, they don't have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More of a reflection of the real world.


The real world? The real fucking world? First of all, if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you'll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: Nothing happens in the real world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There's genocide and war and corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else! Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it, for Christ's sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can't find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don't know much about life! And why the fuck are you taking up my precious two hours with your movie? I don't have any use for it! I don't have any bloody use for it!


Okay, thanks.

"A good story can come from anywhere," they say. Maybe that's true. I've been reading the NY Times. Nothing there. I've been looking inside my own world, and one of my good friends finally had her baby after three miscarriages and two rounds of hormones. Still, not really what I'm looking for. I've been reading books, short stories, forwarded emails; I've even gone through the Bible, and still, nothing.

Maybe that's not totally true. It seems to me, as I'm looking at these characters on the page, that a good story comes from your protagonist's desire.

And maybe that's the problem. My perfect, lovable protagonist, in all his wisdom and glory, is also completely content. He's happy. He's passive, with no real desires. In other words, he's a complete and useless bore.

After weeks of research, weeks of outlining, and twenty-five pages of writing, it's all dead. Content characters have no desire. No desire means no goal. No goal means no reason for conflict, and no reason for conflict means no story.

I do love these characters, but they're just not working out. That leaves me with two options.

1) Break up with them. (Trash.)

2) Hurt them. Take something away from them that's really meaningful.

Sometimes it might be easier to just throw it all away and start again, and there's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes, if you just can't get that character out of your head, you're going to have to go Jack Bauer on them.

Maybe he loses an arm. Maybe she loses a leg. Maybe everybody in his family is murdered. Maybe he gets kicked out of school or fired, or maybe he's got cancer. I've done the character questionnaires and the monologues, but while I've spent all this time throwing new situations at my character, I've not spent any time taking things away from my character.

I don't know about you, but as many times as I write answers to those questionnaires, they don't help me one bit. It's like I just handed a person a form to fill out. They give you the basics, but they're uninspiring and mechanical. What actually gets you to look at a character and get to know them? A conversation. Watching them in action. Watching them in times of joy and sorrow– the same way you get to know people you love. And by getting to know them, you find out that no one is content. Everyone has secrets; everyone has desires.  That's where you find your story.